In a competitive field, there is one election that could be argued is the most significant of the past decade. Not the one that delivered the Coalition, nor the one that made Corbyn Labour leader, nor the one that deprived May of her majority, nor even the Referendum itself.
I’d argue that it was the 2014 elections to the European Parliament changed British politics in a way we are yet to fully understand. If they were to take place, the unexpected European Parliament elections of 2019 could have an equally seismic impact.
Prior to 2014, Europe was, according to all polling data, one of the least important issues for the British electorate. Fewer than 10% of voters rated EU membership as one of their top concerns during the decade running up to 2014, according to polling data from Ipsos MORI. At times during the 2000s it barely registered at all.
Yet somehow, whether through disillusionment with the main parties, concerns over migration or through other factors, UKIP topped the poll held on May 22nd 2014, winning just under 27% of the vote and 24 of the 73 seats up for election. Labour came second with 24%, and the Tories third with 23%.
Looking at the well over four million voters who had backed Nigel Farage’s party, Cameron made the fateful decision to pledge a referendum of European Union membership in his manifesto for the following year’s General Election. He knew that should even a fraction of those voters desert the Tories in the General Election he would be replaced in No 10 by Ed Miliband within months. The rest, as they say, is history. And of course, the infuriating, divided and chaotic present.
The elections held in May 2014 were held on the same day as delayed local elections, and saw a turnout of 35%. European elections traditionally have not prompted great enthusiasm and have been used as a proxy for Westminster battles. Being held under a fairly complex system of proportional representation, there was always the possibility of the two-party duopoly being broken. The Greens have almost managed it before.
Everything has changed since that spring five years ago when no-one had heard of the term “Brexit”. Two general elections, a bitterly divisive referendum, parties strained and fractured over Europe as never before, EU membership moving to the top of the public agenda, news bulletins and daily conversation.
Now, Parliament is deadlocked. Six million have signed a petition demanding Britain’s departure from the European Union is halted, a million people have converged on the capital calling for the people to have the final say on what happens next, and our political system has been exposed as woefully inadequate at dealing with this issue.
On the march, I listened to people talk about how the main parties had failed them. They saw the system as broken and in desperate need of something new. Polling shows little enthusiasm for either the Tories or Labour, for Jeremy Corbyn or any of those manoeuvring to replace Theresa May.
This week, we will find out if there is to be a long delay to Brexit which will force the UK to at least prepare to elect a new cohort of MEPs this May. What if the astonishing breakthrough and devastating impact of UKIP last time could be mirrored by a new and pro-European political party, harnessing the energy of the people who signed that petition and marched on Parliament? The European Elections would offer an opportunity far greater than a General Election for that new party to make a big impression.
Voters would not be electing a government. Under proportional representation, their votes could be cast positively and risk-free, without the need for tactical considerations. They could give their verdict on how Brexit has been handled and how the two main parties are doing. They could cast a positive vote for a positive alternative.
Polling in the past week has shown half of those who voted Conservative or Labour in the 2017 General Election may not vote for them again. We could be witnessing a fundamental re-alignment of British party politics.
The election of ten, fifteen or even twenty MEPs would win the new party a seat at the table, broadcast time, resources and representation that would immediately establish it as a force in British and European politics. It would create a political gravitational pull that others could not escape or ignore.
Still, if a deal is passed the European elections may not happen. The new party is not yet registered to contest them. Time is incredibly short and the odds are stacked against it happening. Yet we live in a time where, politically, anything seems possible and the unpredictable outcome seems so often to emerge the winner.
For The Independent Group, this might be the unexpected opportunity to change politics in a way that five years ago, five months ago, no-one could have foreseen.
Warren Morgan is the Independent Councillor for East Brighton and former Labour Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council.
Enjoyed this article? Why not donate and support the work of Change Politics in giving a voice to the forgotten centre-ground?